Child Safety: The First Priority

Chronology of Failure

On a cold January day, 14-month-old Iain Cunningham and his mother, Margaret, were playing with his Play Family School Bus, his favorite first-year birthday gift. Iain stood up to follow his dad, who was walking by, when he suddenly stopped and began to gag. During the parents’ frantic attempts to help Iain, his teeth clenched, he stopped breathing, and a frightening sea of blood poured from his mouth. Iain was rushed to the hospital, where his parents were informed that Iain’s life was saved, but he suffered irreversible brain damage due to lack of oxygen. The play figurine that had lodged in Iain’s throat ultimately caused cerebral palsy, loss of muscle control, and irreversible brain damage rendering him incapable of leading an independent, self-supporting life.

The manufacturer, Fisher-Price, had for years marketed its “Little People” play figurines to oral-age children, sized to be small enough to enter a child’s airway, but too large to pass through. As a result, numerous children suffered brain damage or died. Other details in this tragic chronology include: (1) The manufacturer marketed the toys as “safe” for oral-age children; (2) six years prior to Iain’s incident, experts and concerned parents made the company aware of the choking risks, among them one parent whose child nearly suffered a choking tragedy, and who notified Fisher-Price about a “death trap” it was selling; (3) there was no testing done by the manufacturer, pre-market or otherwise, regarding the toy’s ability to block a child’s airway; and (4) the company did not initially redesign or recall the toy during the 1980s, even while evidence mounted of the hazard associated with it.

Fisher-Price’s eventual “response,” only after receiving numerous reports over years of tragedies—six reported deaths and one brain damaged child—was to change its labeling and marketing strategy, and to make the figurines larger, to reduce the risk of choking. To this day, the original figurines have not been recalled, and they likely remain in homes, schools, and toy-boxes across the country.[1]

Safety First

Historically, there are numerous examples of suffering and tragedy similar to young Iain’s as a result of a toy or children’s product being designed for sales rather than safety. Sadly, the record of the toy industry regarding design, manufacture, and marketing of playthings makes abundantly clear that too often, the primary goal is not the best interests and safety of our children. Just as unfortunately, there are those who enable such inexcusable neglect by suggesting that demanding accountability from a multi-billion dollar industry is an over-zealous attempt to “smother” the most precious and vulnerable in our society with “safety,” as if achieving a marketplace with the safest products in order to help prevent tragedies is an effort to be mocked or even scorned. To the contrary—as a society, we have the right and even obligation to demand that manufacturers and retailers, who are in the best position to know the hazards associated with their products, take all feasible steps to safeguard our youngest consumers.

Myth: All Toys and Children’s Products Are Safe

As parents and caregivers, we want to believe that all toys that reach retail shelves are safe – that they have been properly designed, tested, and marketed. Manufacturers and retailers often do their best to perpetuate this myth by insisting their products are safe, despite evidence to the contrary. The result is a dangerous assumption among toy shoppers, perpetuated by the industry, that toys purchased from big-name manufacturers and retailers are not dangerous. In fact, seeing a familiar name on a package can lead to a false sense of security that the toy enclosed is safe. Too many toys and children’s products are not safe.

For years, major manufacturers sold millions of small hammocks as children’s toys, but with a significant, potentially deadly hidden defect: spreader bars, typically found on adult hammocks to prevent the material from bunching together into a noose-like configuration, were not incorporated into their design. A seven-year-old girl suffered permanent brain damage from a near-strangulation in a mini-hammock marketed for children. Another near-fatal incident involved a five-year-old boy who was found entangled in a mini-hammock, but was resuscitated by his mother. In the late 1990s, numerous manufacturers and importers of mini-hammocks without spreader bars recalled more than 3 million of their dangerous products. Without spreader bars to hold the mini-hammock bed open, the mini-hammock could twist around a child’s neck as he or she was getting into or out of the mini-hammock, resulting in strangulations and deaths. The government received reports of at least 12 children between the ages of five and 17 years old who became entangled and died when using net mini-hammocks without spreader bars.[2]

From the early mini-hammock recalls until the present time, millions of toys have been recalled every year due to defects with the potential to cause harm to children, often representing hazards that are well known (or should be well known) in the industry. In fact, in 2010, thousands of “baby”-hammocks made their way into the streams of commerce, requiring yet another recall due to a suffocation hazard. The hammocks in question were deemed defective because, unbeknownst to the families of babies for whom the product was marketed, a suffocation hazard was presented by the side-to-side shifting or tilting of the hammock, which could cause an infant to roll and become entrapped or wedged against the hammock’s fabric and/or mattress pad.[3]

Tragedies from defective products strike in homes, schools, and daycare centers; they can happen when a child is alone or with a parent. Importantly, while recalls play a vital role in child safety, more emphasis needs to be on proper design and testing, so that offending products do not make their way into the streams of commerce in the first instance. Recalls may recover some defective playthings, but in reality, once the items are in toy boxes, children’s rooms, backyards, and schools, there is no feasible way to recover all of them. In short, many dangers can and should be prevented.[4]

“Machismo” and “Body-Count Consumerism” Over Safety

Those who decry the role of government and consumer advocacy in seeking protections from defective and potentially deadly products rely on certain tried and true tactics.

First, there are the attacks on the messengers with name-calling and labels that are intended to mock the efforts of truly concerned consumers, the whistleblowers who are brave enough to speak out, to ensure that manufacturers are doing all they can to promote safety. Such advocates are labeled “over-protective,” “worst-first thinking,” and viewing children as “weak little babies.” After all, so many of us survived childhoods without such attention to safety, so there should be no complaints now, even in the face of evidence of defective items destroying lives.

Second, amazingly, it is pointed out that in certain instances, only a few children have been maimed or killed, so the odds are quite good. As the Fisher-Price “Little People” (at least six deaths and one brain-damaged child) and mini-hammock (at least twelve deaths and one brain-damaged child) examples show, the approach of “body count consumerism” has been a mainstay of major corporations for decades. How many children need to be sacrificed to make a product safer, or remove a product from the market? Why is it acceptable to lose just one precious child, when the injuries suffered are wholly preventable with appropriate safety measures?

The True Stories

Apologists for manufacturers of defective and dangerous products pick and choose facts that best suit their arguments, with the goal of getting the most shock value in support of their points.

Ms. Skenazy uses the following (in part) as recent examples of alleged over-reaching: fleece hoodies with lead-coated zippers; bouncy seats with mold; and drop-side crib dangers. These short references are used as fodder for ridicule and sarcastic comment.

Here are the facts:

Drop-Side Cribs: Following the deaths of at least 32 infants and toddlers, and millions of recalls, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) voted unanimously in 2010 to ban these poorly designed cribs. The new standards, requiring fixed sides, were implemented after determining that manufacturers were selling such cribs with malfunctioning hardware, cheaper plastics, or assembly problems, leading to the rails becoming partially detached. The resulting dangerous “v”-like gap between the mattress and side rail could, as was well known to manufacturers, cause entrapment, suffocation, or strangulation of babies. Crib-makers, in fact, had already been phasing out drop-side cribs due to the acknowledged defects, however the mounting body count required swift government action.[5]

Fleece Hoodies: These clothes were sold for use by babies as young as 12 months old, who commonly mouth and suck on small parts, whether on clothes, toys, or other children’s products. Lead is a known and cumulative poison—thus, even small amounts ingested can, over time, cause serious health issues, with the potential to affect every organ and system in the human body. Children six years old and younger are most susceptible to the effects of lead, which may include permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. The clothing in question was sold in violation of the federal lead paint standard, instituted many years ago to provide protections from these very significant health effects, which had become epidemic absent such laws.[6]

Fisher Price Infant Sleepers: The mold developing on these products was not due to dirty surfaces or a failure to clean the products. In fact, as the result of presumed manufacturing defect, black mold grew on vinyl-like surfaces hidden from sight, underneath the cloth cover in which newborns would lie. Toxic mold is known to have severe effects on the fully developed and functional respiratory systems of adults. These sleepers were sold for use by infants, with underdeveloped systems and low immunities. I have personally communicated with families whose babies have suffered and continue to suffer from respiratory illnesses (coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing) as a result of more than 800,000 of these potentially harmful products flooding the marketplace.[7]

Flawed Statistical Comparisons

One death to one child is one too many if preventable by proper and safe design.

Ms. Skenazy, in support of her point that the tragic loss of certain numbers of our youngest children to defective products is somehow statistically acceptable, references hazards associated with stairways, eating, and driving children in cars. She attempts to make the point that in the case of drop-side cribs, for example, these other activities are statistically more hazardous. This reasoning is flawed in several respects. First, the cribs are marketed and sold for use by infants who lack the ability to make decisions about their well-being. They are foreseeably placed in an environment for sleeping (often overnight, without parental supervision), with the expectation that these infants will not lose their lives to a product defect. The defects, while brought to light sadly by the loss of innocent life, were not determined to exist as a result of the statistics, as she suggests. Rather, a closer scrutiny of the products determined that there were clear, life-threatening hazards that needed to be eliminated. Further, the environment of end use is a necessary component in a manufacturer’s decisionmaking process. There is simply no excuse for a crib’s design to be responsible for even one infant’s death. Finally, once a defect is recognized in a children’s product, it must be corrected, or removed from the market, without delay.

Vigilance, Not Indifference

The best weapon in the fight to prevent injuries to children continues to be safely designed and manufactured products. The burden must be on manufacturers and retailers, not consumers, to identify the known hazards before their products enter the channels of commerce.

While proper labeling, regulations, and recalls are important for toy safety, toy manufacturers have a responsibility to ensure that safe products reach the marketplace. For instance, toys with parts that can detach and become lodged in a child’s throat are often not considered “small parts” by the industry. Moreover, recalls are reactive, not proactive. Unfortunately, many consumers never receive notice of toy recalls and may not know that a dangerous toy sits like a time bomb in their child’s toy box. Many of the toys recalled in the last year are evidence of substandard manufacturing practices, as well as inadequate pre-market testing, which put our nation’s children at risk of serious injury or death.[8]

Notes

[1] Toys That Kill, pp. 13-24, by Edward M. Swartz (1986 Vintage Books, Div. of Random House)

[2] http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/1996/CPSC-EZ-Sales-Twin-Oaks-Hammock-Company-and-Safesport-Manufacturing-Company-Announce-Recall-of-Mini-Hammocks/

[3] http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2010/Baby-Hammocks-Recalled-by-MamaLittleHelper-Due-to-Suffocation-Hazard/

[4] Toys That Kill, pp. 69-70.

[5] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/40678788/ns/health-kids_and_parenting/?GT1=43001; http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/consumer&id=8218623

[6] http://www.cpsc.gov/vi-VN/Recalls/2013/Childrens-Apparel-Network-Recalls-Fleece-Hoodie-and-T-Shirt-Sets-Due-to-Violation-of-Lead-Paint-Standard-Sold-Exclusively-at-Target/; http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/; http://www.epa.gov/lead/.

[7] http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2013/Fisher-Price-Recalls-to-Inspect-Rock-N-Play-Infant-Sleepers-Due-to-Risk-of-Exposure-to-Mold/

[8] World Against Toys Causing Harm, Inc. (WATCH), Press Release November, 2012 (http://toysafety.org/worstToyList.shtml)

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Smothered by Safety by Lenore Skenazy

    Lenore Skenazy argues that when it comes to children, we have gone too far in the pursuit of safety at all costs. This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, either; it has serious implications for public policy, in the form of consumer product regulations and family and even criminal law. She suggests that it’s time to start learning to relax about children’s safety. In particular, allowing kids to take controlled risks is one of the ways that we introduce them to the real world, which is not and should not be risk-free.

Response Essays

  • Child Safety: More than Tree Stumps and Toe Mold by Anthony Green

    Anthony Green argues that child safety is nothing to joke about. It is not an overreach to call the police if you see a child alone in a locked car; on the contrary, you should certainly do it. Real progress has been made in child safety in recent years, even as new threats emerge, including toppling television sets and poisoning among older children. The child protection community has done tremendous good, and safety enables fun rather than inhibiting it.

  • The Roots of Concern about Kids by Joel Best

    Joel Best identifies two changing factors in American culture that have contributed to overblown fears related to children. The first is the mass media, which excels at spreading alarming stories, whether true or fictionalized. The second is the declining birthrate, coupled with increased safety itself: There are fewer children per family, and losing one is not an experience we suffer so often nowadays. As a result, smaller problems appear more alarming.

The Conversation

Letters to the Editor